After an excellent postseason performance, where he tallied five goals, 15 points, and a +10 rating, tied for third on the team with defenseman John Carlson, in 21 games, all while playing on the top line with center Evgeny Kuznetsov and captain Alex Ovechkin to power the Washington Capitals to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history, forward Tom Wilson entered this season with high expectations. Signing a six-year contract worth $31 million ($5.17 million AAV) over the summer to become part of the team’s core put even more pressure on the 24-year old first liner going into 2018-19.
Wilson’s season got off to a shaky start. He was suspended 20 games just prior to the Capitals’ season opener against the Boston Bruins on October 3 for an illegal check to the head on St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist in the Capitals’ preseason closer a few days prior.
He and the NHL Players’ Association appealed the suspension to commissioner Gary Bettman, who upheld the suspension. A day later, Wilson appealed to a neutral arbitrator. After a long time coming, the NHL announced that Wilson’s suspension was reduced by six games but he had already served 16 games by the time the decision was made.
While he was excited to join his team as they continued their quest for a repeat, Wilson knew he had to change his game and could not pull another controversial hit after getting suspended four times in a span of 105 games, which the NHL’s Department of Player Safety called “an unprecedented frequency of suspensions.” The odds are his next suspension could be as long as 40-games if he pulls off another illegal hit.
He knows that both he and the Capitals cannot afford for that to happen. After his first couple of games, Wilson acknowledged to the media that he has seen some opportunities to hit someone but has passed up since he knows that he’s under the league’s microscope.
While he knows that he has to change his game, his physicality is one of his biggest assets and part of what makes Washington’s top line one of the most dangerous lines in the league. Both he and the Capitals want him to stay physical while playing within the rules. His physicality was a huge reason why he was able to find so much success next to Kuznetsov and Ovechkin on the top line, opening space up and doing all the dirty work while the Capitals’ top-two offensive threats do their thing.
Since returning to the lineup, he has already recorded six goals, tied with three other Capitals for third on the team in that category, and 12 points, leading 10 other teammates who have played at least 10 games. In addition, he has a +6 rating. Wilson is averaging 1.50 points-per-game, which is currently third in the league behind Colorado Avalanche linemates Mikko Rantanen (1.65) and Nathan MacKinnon (1.52), the league’s top two leading scorers. MacKinnon also finished second in voting for the Hart Trophy, awarded to league MVP, last season.
In his first seven games, Wilson has been held off the scoresheet for only one game and has already tallied four multi-point games. The forward enters the Capitals’ game against the New Jersey Devils on Friday riding six-game point-streak, amassing five goals and 11 points in that span, and a four-game goal scoring streak, including two goals in the team’s 4-1 win over the New York Islanders on Monday night. His shooting percentage is currently at a career-high 28.6% rate.
But Wilson’s impact goes beyond the scoresheet.
Since Wilson has returned to the lineup, the Capitals have killed 88% of their penalties after the Capitals killed off just 72.9% of the penalties they took in the 16 games he was absent. Going into his debut on November 13, the team had allowed at least one power-play goal in four consecutive games, going 10-for-16 (62.5%) in that span, including 5-for-9 (55.56%) in the last two games leading up to his suspension. Since returning to the lineup, Wilson has averaged 2:22 worth of ice time per game on the penalty kill.
What makes Wilson’s breakout performance over these past few weeks even more impressive is that he has averaged a career-high 20:44 worth of ice time per game. Entering this season, he never averaged more than 16 minutes of ice time per game. Wilson has also been able to step up while the Capitals have missed Kuznetsov and forward T.J. Oshie, in addition to defenseman Brooks Orpik on the penalty kill, for all six games of their winning streak.
Defensively, the 6’4” winger has been responsible, recording five blocked shots, 19 hits, four takeaways, and only five giveaways this season.
In addition, Wilson also gives the Capitals a sense of security as he makes players on the opposition feel uncomfortable when they’re on the ice when he is. Earlier this year, NBC Sports’ Pierre McGuire told TSN that if the Capitals were to put Wilson on the trade block that they would have 30 offers by the end of the day because of the impact that he can bring to a team and the skill that he possesses.
Since returning to the lineup, Wilson, who is expected to appear in his 400th NHL game on Friday against the New Jersey Devils, has not moved from his spot on the top line with Ovechkin. Though with Kuznetsov out, centers Lars Eller and Nicklas Backstrom have split time up between the two wingers.
Wilson is developing into the big offensive threat the team imagined he would be when they drafted him 16th overall in 2012 and is doing it all for the Capitals, whether that’s killing penalties or riding shotgun on one of the league’s most potent trios. Wilson is on pace for 50 goals and 99 points in 66 games this season but it is highly unlikely that he will be able to come close to sustaining that scoring pace. While it’s unlikely he will, the Capitals don’t need him to be as long as he keeps doing the little things for the team like providing energy and killing penalties in addition to improving his offensive game.
Since Wilson returned to the lineup, the Capitals are 7-1-0 despite missing some big pieces up front after going 7-6-3 when he was serving his suspension.
If he does those things, his price will be a bargain for all the value he brings to the team and those critics who thought his big pay was a huge overpayment by the Capitals will be put to rest.
By Harrison Brown